Criterion Sunday 150: Bob le flambeur (1956)

There’s style here undoubtedly: its tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for one last big score by staging a heist has been cribbed for so many subsequent films that it can’t help but feeling like cliché. The plot’s not all that later filmmakers (not least early Godard and all his fanboy imitators) would take — the use of music, the laid-back style, the pop culture references (all those film posters; Breathless really did owe a lot to Melville). The problem is — and I concede this may just be because I’ve seen all its imitators first — I wasn’t grabbed by it. It looks great but these guys all feel like empty archetypes, and the young woman’s ​characterisation appears to be undressing in various men’s apartments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 March 2017

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Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015

LFF 2016 Day Three

Day Three was Friday 7 October, and I saw two films, before getting on a train to Manchester for the weekend. This does sadly mean I missed a director Q&A with the director and two leads of Divines.


Réparer les vivants (Heal the Living) (2016, France/Belgium, dir. Katell Quillévéré, wr. Quillévéré/Gilles Taurand, DOP Tom Harari)
I found this affecting in all kinds of ways, but maybe I’ve just been hanging out for a really great film from this film festival and am seeing what I want to see (it can happen at festivals). That said, I don’t think the cinematic quality of the opening scenes can be denied: lulling you in to a bunch of guys going out early to catch some waves, splashing about, having a good time and then… the film goes in other directions. This happens a few times: new characters are introduced, and you have to figure out how they’ll fit in. It’s a film filled with people not making decisions, putting off telling people things, not being active but just reacting to events that happen to them, and, ultimately, accepting their fate. There’s also a bit of surgery (a lot of the film is set at hospitals) but it’s nicely handled, and anyway this is a film about emotional journeys as much as anything. I think it’s a great film, right now. [****]


Divines (2016)

Divines (2016, France/Qatar, dir./wr. Houda Benyamina, DOP Julien Poupard)
Here’s what’s great about Divines: it looks beautiful, and the lead actors, especially Oulaya Amamra, are brilliant. Amamra was in a shorter film called Mariam earlier this year that I really liked, and she’s on fire in this. As a film, it has elements that remind me of Bande de filles (Girlhood), and does similar things that I disliked in that film (and in Dheepan too for that matter) in terms of, shall we say, the deployment of generic tropes. So for me it’s… not entirely successful. But I wish its filmmakers and its actors all the best. [***]

Criterion Sunday 83: The Harder They Come (1972)

The soundtrack for this was a mainstay in my household during my formative years, so I can attest to the excellence of the music in this apparently first Jamaican feature film. Indeed, music features heavily in the life of its protagonist Ivan, as you’d expect given he’s played by recording artist Jimmy Cliff. He’s a small-town country boy moved to the big city after the death of his guardian, where he hopes to make it in the music business, but is swiftly derailed by the corruption of the system. It seems like it’s going to be a film about achieving your dreams, but the socio-economic circumstances of his life pushes him towards criminality, and that’s where the film finds its groove. I would shy away from calling it gritty or realistic — it plays around with plenty of gangster genre tropes — but it certainly does give a vivid sense of the shantytown geography of the poorer parts of Kingston. It also doesn’t avoid the local dialect, to the extent that I found it much easier to follow by putting on the English subtitles. In any case, it has the charm of a young industry flushed with the possibilities of the format, and most of all an incredible, pulsating soundtrack, whether the hit song of the title which Ivan is seen recording, or the incidental music that follows his progress throughout the film.

Criterion Extras: Aside from those handy English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, there’s a short interview with Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, an instrumental figure in the popularisation of reggae in the Western world.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Perry Henzell | Writers Perry Henzell and Trevor D. Rhone | Cinematographers Peter Jessop, David McDonald and Franklyn St. Juste | Starring Jimmy Cliff | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 March 2016

Victoria (2015)

This new German film has shown up at festivals and now on general release on a wave of film geekiness around the fact it’s shot in one continuous 138-minute take, which is of course impressive, but doesn’t make it de facto a good film. Other films have gone this route in the past (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark most notably, which I am embarrassed to say I found boring and inert, though I don’t mean to impugn its filmmaking credentials by any means), and far more films have pretended to (last year’s Birdman, or Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, most famously). Victoria seems to be the real deal, though, and technically yes it’s very accomplished.

As dawn rises over Berlin, the camera sinuously follows our eponymous protagonist (Laia Costa) from a club to palling around with some lads outside, chiefly the chatty Sonne (Frederick Lau), to getting sucked into a heist — which, as heists tend to do, goes badly wrong. If the method of presentation does anything it shows how easy it is to be pressured into something that turns out very badly for everyone, not to mention keeping an oppressively close focus on Victoria herself and her feelings, largely impassive though Costa’s face remains throughout.

Victoria’s backstory, the emotional crux of the film, is a short scene between herself and Sonne in the cafe where she’s working, about half an hour into the film, when she plays the piano for him. It highlights the struggle she’s had to make her way in life, and the bitter blow that this has dealt to her self-esteem, such that for all its genre trappings the film as a whole seems to really be about just how bleak the situation is for the younger generation (explaining to a certain extent why she’s willing to place herself in what seems to us complacent viewers as danger). For all her training and opportunities, she’s teetering on the edge of the precariat, living away from home (from Spain originally), speaking no German yet working a less-than-minimum-wage job at unsocial hours with no benefits or apparent prospects, certainly not much more than the lads she meets up with. It hardly seems surprising she should grasp at any opportunity, if not to succeed, then just to do something, and that’s an emotional nugget which the film seems to get right.

Still, given the way it’s filmed, Victoria is hardly action-packed, and there are long digressive stretches of quiet observance, for periods of which the sound is replaced by a musical score (perhaps the dialogue was less successful at these moments). Maybe the film shouldn’t work, and yet it largely does, thanks to the single-mindedness of its actors, its director and of course (as has been mentioned many times already) its indefatigable camerman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.


Victoria (2015)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sebastian Schipper | Writers Olivia Neergard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper and Eike Frederik Schulz| Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen | Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 5 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 39: Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter, 1966)

Seijun Suzuki’s final film for Japanese film studio Nikkatsu was Branded to Kill (covered last week, as the films are numbered in reverse chronological order by Criterion), but it shares certain generic traits in common with the previous year’s Tokyo Drifter. They’re both yakuza gangster films with outsider protagonists, but where the later film dealt with a hitman (whose work is naturally lonesome), here our hero is pushed into his drifter lifestyle. Tetsuya Watari plays a gangster of the same first name (generally abbreviated to Tetsu) whose boss has retired. When he turns down the advances of a rival, his peripatetic fate is sealed. Plotwise, there’s other stuff in there (a girl, a double-cross), but as always with Suzuki it’s the style that shines through. Tetsu isn’t just a drifter, he’s a drifter with a catchy title song that crops up throughout the film, and as the initial black-and-white scenes soon break into vibrant colour, it’s quickly established that he has a quirky style, dressed in a powder-blue suit on his journeys. There’s not a huge deal of depth to it, but it’s a concise film with a sure sense of its own stylishness.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki | Writer Yasunori Kawauchi | Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine | Starring Tetsuya Watari | Length 82 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2015

Criterion Sunday 38: Koroshi no Rakuin (Branded to Kill, 1967)

By this point, director Seijun Suzuki had already proven his directorial credentials. I’ve reviewed the previous year’s Carmen from Kawachi, and another film from that year will come up next week (Tokyo Drifter), each an off-beat cinematic journey around familiar generic outlines. Both the latter film and the one under discussion here take on the gangster film genre, and the fact Suzuki was fired by his studio and blacklisted by the industry after Branded to Kill suggests its lack of commercial success, though surely his stylistic flights of fancy are as much to blame. After all, it’s exactly the kind of film you’d imagine late-night Western audiences looking for a 2001 or Saragossa Manuscript-style headtrip would love (though it didn’t reach that market until the 1980s). However, this does mean that the intricacies of the plot remain somewhat opaque and difficult to recall — in outline, it’s about contract killer Goro Hanada (endearingly chubby-cheeked Joe Shishido) who variously falls in love and is haunted by the failure of a mission, but I can’t tell you more than that. What’s wonderful about the film, and repays each viewing, is the delirium found within the cinematic frame, firing off traditional gangster cliches against monochrome film noir stylings, pop art influences and at times a stripped-back kabuki aesthetic. As one example amongst many, tropes like the hero’s oversexualised libido are sent up by Hanada’s obsession with the smell of steamed rice. What results for the viewer is something of a confusing journey, but whatever else it might be, it’s never a boring one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki | Writer Hachiro Guryu | Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka | Starring Joe Shishido | Length 98 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2015

Hot Pursuit (2015)

I feel like I spend quite a bit of time trying to say nice things about films which aren’t objectively any good. I shouldn’t really have liked Exeter or Return to Sender to take two recent low-achieving candidates for the straight-to-DVD shelf, but they had at least a kernel of something I enjoyed within them. Hot Pursuit is no doubt competently put together by a Hollywood journeywoman — and it’s nice to see that women just as well as men can be picked on for such a thankless task — but it suffers from a fatal flaw, without which no film can ever truly achieve its potential. It has a shitty script. It has a script so insufferably bad that it contrives ridiculous plot twist upon banal cliched plot device to try to distract the audience from the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Now this kind of thing can be redeemed by a light touch and self-aware acting (I’d say She’s Funny That Way manages to at least partially rescue a tired and similarly-screwball scenario by such means), but neither Witherspoon as the by-the-book strait-laced Texan cop or Vergara as the sultry gangster’s wife are ever allowed to stop being shrill and incompetent at everything they do, except for a short scene of heart-to-heart bonding (I think it’s over Witherspoon’s character getting a man) and another which allows us to imagine just for the briefest of moments (like, maybe 10-15 seconds) that Vergara may turn out not to be a hideous Latin American stereotype, but another slightly-less-hideous Latin American stereotype. In fact for a female-directed film with two female leads it’s remarkably willing to degrade and insult them for our comic delectation — except that it’s not funny, not even a tiny little bit. Not during the “hilarious” transphobic sight gag in the opening montage, nor the “comedy” explanation of menstruation in order to get out of a fix which relies on all men being entirely unaware of either its existence or what it actually entails, certainly not during the “slapstick” sequence where they pretend to be lesbian lovers to get out of an entanglement with a redneck wielding a rifle, and most of all not for the fact that Witherspoon is apparently a trained law enforcement officer and one who is supposed to take herself incredibly seriously (for laughs, of course), yet cannot seem to do anything with any measure of professionalism. But you know, whatever. I’m sure it’s been successful and everyone who made it are happy with their paycheques and the return it’s made on its investment and etc etc. Just don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking this will be interesting or transgressive or even enjoyable just because it’s a female buddy comedy directed by a woman and passes the Bechdel Test. Because it isn’t interesting and it isn’t transgressive and it definitely isn’t enjoyable.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Anne Fletcher | Writers David Feeney and John Quaintance | Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton | Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara | Length 87 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 3 August 2015

Criterion Sunday 30: M (1931)

Justly acclaimed as one of the great films of all time, and certainly among the greatest German films, is this early sound-era film by Fritz Lang, which seems to hint at something noxious in German society of the era. It focuses on the hunt for a child murderer, played by a bug-eyed young Peter Lorre, and suggests a parity between the police and criminals, who are both on the case, the latter with somewhat more effective results. If the way in which the criminals try Lorre suggests something proto-Fascist on the rise, that might be the result of hindsight, and yet the film is beautifully shot, all inky pools of darkness on the Berlin streets and effective use of expressionist shadows to suggest the creeping evil. Sound design is restrained, perhaps due to the infancy of the technology, but the repeated whistled refrain from Peer Gynt is effective as a way of marking the presence of Lorre’s murderer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang | Writers Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang | Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner | Starring Peter Lorre | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 5 July 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 March 2015)

La French (The Connection, 2014)

Jean Dujardin certainly can do suave. He could probably take Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm, though I probably shouldn’t be spending so much time imagining some kind of fictional scenario of these two suited men facing off while smoking picturesquely. However, there’s something about the 70s setting of La French that makes me want to go there. The titles (original and English-language version) should tip you off that this is related to the (real-life) events earlier chronicled by The French Connection (1971). As of this review, I haven’t seen that film (sorry) nor know much about the events, except that the earlier film was made before this one’s events even get going, so here we’re looking at the tail end of the drug trade in France. It’s Jean Dujardin’s magistrate Pierre who largely brings it down, targeting the figure of Gilles Lellouche’s gangster Tany. There’s nothing particularly flashy on show, and while the filmmaker channels the work of Scorsese (music-led sequences; a vivid sense of period place) and others from that vaunted era of American film, it stays restrained like, for example, J.C. Chandor’s recent 70s-set A Most Violent Year. The focus remains on the procedural aspects of Pierre’s work in provincial seaside city Marseille, as he struggles to corner the slippery Tany, and even the strain it puts on his family life is only elliptically touched upon. It’s very much a film about a man’s world (even if co-scripted by a woman), but it’s a compelling one nonetheless.


© Gaumont

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Cédric Jimenez | Writers Audrey Diwan and Cédric Jimenez | Cinematographer Laurent Tangy | Starring Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche | Length 135 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 1 June 2015